A massive search operation has been launched by thousands of US Marines in southern Afghanistan, in a bid to mop up residual Al-Qaeda fighters plus track down and capture, or eliminate, leading Taliban figures.
Up to 5,000 troops from the 15th and 26th Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) were at one point based at Camp Rhino (Dolangi Airfield), near Kandahar. But now the majority of them have moved out on aggressive patrols. American and British Special Forces teams are allegedly assisting them.
As they move about the country in heavily armed road columns and also by helicopter, the US Marines have been involved in several skirmishes with Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. General Richard Myers, America's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: ""We want to get any leadership that's trying to escape, or any Al-Qaeda or non-Afghan fighters that might come back to fight another day."
One US official has revealed that the US Marines are setting up 'detention facilities' at Camp Rhino.
The only occupant at the moment is John Walker Lindh, an American captured with Taliban forces at Mazar-e Sharif.
In mountains far to the east, US and UK Special Forces (including the Royal Navy's Special Boat Service) are said to be supporting anti-Taliban troops closing in on the Al-Qaeda's Tora Bora cave fortress. Whether or not Osama bin-Laden is there is uncertain, but the chance to capture or destroy substantial numbers of Al-Qaeda forces cannot be missed. US Navy combat and reconnaissance aircraft are participating in an intensive aerial bombardment campaign against Tora Bora.
France has deployed her nuclear aircraft Carrier Battle Group to operations in the Arabian Sea. This is possible because the Charles de Gaulle (R91) has returned to service after a routine maintenance lay-up. The combat zone deployment is well timed, as the new carrier needs to undertake extensive long-distance sea trials. The de Gaulle was scheduled to deploy in mid-December and her CBG includes a replenishment ship, a Cassard Class Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) frigate and most probably an Améthyste Class SSN. France has already deployed the replenishment ship BCR Var, the La Fayette Class frigate Courbet (F712), the support and maintenance vessel BSM Loire and two Eridan Class mine-hunting vessels, the Persée (M649) and Pégase (M644).
While the official purpose of the deployment is to take part in action to prevent exfiltration of terrorists from Afghanistan by sea, the Americans have not specifically requested the Charles de Gaulle CBG. Indeed, an additional La Fayette Class frigate would seem more appropriate for hunting down terrorists in small boats. The Charles de Gaulle will carry helicopters along with her E2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft and Super Etendard fighters/bombers. Two Rafale strike fighters might also join the deployment, although they are not yet equipped for air-to-land attacks. In fact, the carrier's naval aviation trials were to take place at the beginning of December. Some say the decision to send her to the Middle East has not been carefully planned and is a political gesture. In the meantime, French ground forces are currently stranded in Uzbekistan thanks to the Northern Alliance declining their presence in Afghanistan.
The French soldiers are relying on support from US forces, since they lack helicopters, winter accommodation shelters and other essential equipment and facilities.
An additional USMC Marine Expeditionary Unit - the 13th MEU - is on the way to the Arabian Sea to reinforce the military action against terrorist targets.
General Tommy Franks, commander of US Central Command, has said that it is possible more US troops will be needed in the country soon. He told a Pentagon briefing: "Everything is on the table."
The activation of a US Army forward headquarters in Kuwait seems to signal an increase in forces deployed to the Gulf region. The 101st and 82nd Air Assault Divisions may shortly enter the fray in Afghanistan, or elsewhere.
The US Navy is stopping large cargo ships as part of efforts to prevent Taliban and Al-Qaeda foot soldiers and leaders, including Osama bin-Laden and Mullah Omar, escaping from Afghanistan. Ships transiting the Arabian Sea from Pakistan are the main targets. One senior US officer said the operation had experienced "no luck so far."
US Navy doctors aboard the USS Bataan (LHD5) treated 20 personnel injured in Afghanistan by a bomb dropped from a US Air Force B52. The wounded were flown by C-130 from the US Marines Corps base south of Kandahar to another airstrip in Pakistan. They were then transported by USMC helicopters to the assault ship, which has its own operating theatre and hospital beds.